Andean Explorer

Mon, 31 Mar 2008 20:45:12 +0000

A successful day Index A lazy day

I'm going to try a spot of live blogging, since I don't have much by way of pressing engagements for the next nine hours.

Here I am on the Andean Explorer train, and it's one of the more bizarre experiences of my life. I'm a distinctly economy class traveller, and here I am plunged into a first class world. I'm way out of my depth. I was asked if I wanted a drink. Noticing that juice was the cheapest thing you could get (US$2), I asked for some pineapple juice. When it arrived, it had been freshly squeezed right there on the train, and was gorgeous. The seats are quite generous armchairs, free standing so you can pull them up to your table, each of which has a cute little table lamp and a freshly cut flower in a bowl. It's all enough to bring on an acute attack of buyer's remorse in a stingy man like me. I have to make a conscious effort to compare the US$147 price to some of the other transport I've booked. Of course, since everything is priced in US dollars, it's getting cheaper with each kilometre that rolls by. Thanks, George W. Bush!

It's an overcast day, even a few spots of rain. So maybe not ideal conditions for enjoying the scenery. But I'm looking forward to a relaxing day.


I've realised that if I unplug my lamp, I have a power point. That's what I consider first class. This means I have enough juice to track the journey by GPS. Geek fun!

It's disturbing to be travelling through poverty in a first class cabin. Worse, the children really do wave at you as you go past. You shouldn't be waving guys, you should be rising up in revolution and firing off a few potshots from your AK47s. Apart from that, some of the local women are dressed almost as traditionally as in the dance show last night - and unlike in Cusco, not so they can charge a couple of soles to be photographed by tourists. They're wearing wide-brimmed hats to keep the sun off, and the hats are colourful because they like colour. This, finally, I properly approve of.

The scenery is starting to get interesting. There were some gigantic sheer cliffs a while back, and the mountains have mist clinging to them.


Opposite me there's a group of middle-aged English tourists. One's sleeping, another is reading a Dan Brown novel. Appalling behaviour.


We were just invited to the lounge car (there's a lounge car?) to get a complimentary whiskey sour and watch some traditional dancing. Whiskey sour I'm in favour of, but I'm a little danced out. So I collected my drink and ducked back to my seat. It's the sourest and most whiskeyey whiskey sour I've ever had, and I'm going to need to tackle it over a period of time.


The sole traditional dancer just paraded past, accompanied by a bloke playing a guitar and pipes. I'm impressed she managed to keep her footing on the wobbling train without spilling people's whiskey sours. But I don't think I'm missing a lot by sitting here instead.


And there she goes on the return leg, closely followed by the Japanese tourists obediently returning to their seats.

We just passed a couple of kids playing football. Their pitch was about three metres wide, and precariously close to the tracks. I realise that that was probably the flattest piece of ground they have at their disposal around here.


That community seemed a little better off. I'm finally seeing the famed fields of corn intermingled with beans, so you've got your nitrogen fixers and a source of vitamin B along with the main crop. Still haven't seen a single squash though. GPS tells me we're at a rather lower altitude now, 3.5km up instead of 4.5.


That makes me feel a little better. While that last kid waved at the train, his father was filming us on his camera-phone. I won't bother feeling guilty from now on.


We just passed through what I take to be the Slough of the Altiplano. It was a pretty big, bustling town, of some considerable economic importance in the area if the size of their market is anything to go by. But the first class train from London to Oxford doesn't bother stopping there.


We're getting into the mountains again, after a period in the plains. For a change, we just passed a busload of tourists photographing and waving at the train. Many, many cameras.

It's time for lunch. I've just had my table laid. Tragically, this necessitated clearing away all of my electronics.


Just before lunch, we stopped at... well, a stop. Apparently this is the highest point of the journey, so there's a chance to stretch our legs and, of course, buy lots of alpaca-related tat from the alpaca-related tat market which is the only significant local feature. OK, a couple of other things worth mentioning. First, the mountains are truly spectacular, with a huge field filled with herds of alpacas stretching away to a wall of snowy peaks. Second, there's a wonderful rustic church here, that looks to me to represent the real syncretic religion of the area. It's very pickchureskew, especially with the sun starting to break through.

On returning to my seat, I've been served with the cutest tiny croissant I've ever seen. Lunch is starting.


So that was lunch. The entree I went for was the "peruvian sushi", since it sounded interesting. Then I was worried that it might turn out to be ceviches again. In the event there was no fish at all, it was just that it was in the form of a sushi roll. Some sort of grain replaced the rice, and instaed of seaweed there was a soft pancakey substance. It came with lots of garnishes, and was pretty nice.

For main course I went for roast beef in fig sauce. Extremely tender beef, and a mild sweet taste to the sauce. in general, the flavours of the meeal tended towards the delicate, whereas I usually prefer my flavours covered in inch-thick steel spikes and spoiling for a fight. The presentattion throughout was beautiful, and really made the whole thing more appetising. I guess this is what fine dining is like.

Desert turned out to be rice pudding, with a garnish of yet anothner tropical fruit I'm not familiar with. I think I enjoyed that most of all, even though by the time I worked my way through that rice I was absolutely stuffed.

One weird aspect to the meal is that we had synchronised waiters. Half a carriage's worth of meals would be brought out by a bunch of waiters who would line up, pause, and then upon some secret signal all simultaneously lay the plates in front of the passengers. Impressive, but pointless. I guess that's the definition of luxury right there.


We've been invited to the lounge car for another round of dancing, and instruction in how to mix "the famous whiskey sour". I'm not sure i could cope with any more dancing, and I already know how to make a whiskey sour. You need one (1) good cocktail bar, and one (1) wad of cash. Gradually mix the cash into the bar, and whiskey sours will result. (Note from later: Pisco sour, not whiskey sour. That would explain a lot.)


This time the lone dancer was accompanied by four musicians. It's a weird life for some: get paid to spend 9 hours on the train for just a 20 minute performance. Unless, I suppose, the msicians were actually the waiters in a costume.


A marvellous mudbrick church just went by. Very solid-looking, and complete with a small belltower in the Spanish colonial style. I get the impression that it's the cornerstone of the local community. I bet the locals are proud of it.


Weirdly, when the musicians returned, the dancer wasn't with them. Maybe she liked it in the lounge car and decided to stay. Or maybe she had one too many whiskey sours.


I notice a lot of llamas around. At least, I assume they're llamas, I never quite got the hang of telling the difference between llamas and alpacas. I think the llamas are the ones with camel-like heads, whereas the alpacas have more sheep-like heads. The llamas are usually in mixed herds with cattle and sheep. I guess sheep's wool isn't as good in the cold as llama wool.


It was getting uncomfortably warm there for a while. I tried opening a window, but they're quite small, and we're just not going fast enough for it to make much difference. But I love these Andean late afternoons. Cool, but never cold. At least, this is the case in late summer. I guess there's a reason why llamas have that thick coating of wool, but that is so not my problem.

I could just go some afternoon tea right now.


I have my cup, but no actual tea yet.


Man, I like this place. It's like Blade Runner here, gritty as all hell. The market has people selling scrap metal, auto parts, tools, massive stacks of rope, and piles of broken computer equipment, remote controls, and circuit boards. There are dusty pool tables out in the street. Best of all was the kid who, instead of waving at the train, threw a stone at it. That's the spirit.

In fact I notice that we're actually driving right up the middle of the market street, with only a foot or so between us and the stalls. In other words, we're shutting down their entire Saturday market with this jaunt. Now that's first class attitude.


Tea up. It tastes unusual, and very strong - I have no idea what variety it is. I asked for milk before tasting it, and got handed a huge jug. But that's really not appropriate for this stuff. A bit of sugar is OK though.

Aha, and a ham and cheese sandwich with the crusts cut off, a tiny slice of swiss roll, and a little cookie. How very civilised. Anyone for tennis?


And back to the shores of Lake Titicaca. Only the small bit, with Puno bay, so not that impressive. This part looks like wetlands. In fact we're pretty much running through swamp at the moment.


We're getting into Puno now. Not really my favourite place in the world, but after all that hard work today, it'll be nice to relax in my hotel room in the evening.


A mysterious stop for no particular reason. Nothing out of the ordinary for a veteran of the rail systems of Sydney and the UK like myself.

Wow, it turned out we were actually dropping a bunch of tourists off right at the gate of their hotel. Of all the cheek.


And we arrive - including the welcome sight of the illuminated sign for the Hostal Los Uros where I have a reservation. We have to wait five minutes for authorisation from the central station, apparently. Odd.


At the gate, there were the usual crowd of people hawking taxis, but also lots of people holding notices to meet guests with reservations. I pushed my way through the throng, until I heard someone yelling "Exon". How bizarre is that? They actually sent someone to meet me, even though I hadn't asked them to. In fact I was really suspicious that this was just an elaborate mugging, but it's only a block from the train station to the hotel. They gave me the same room, so here I am back in Hostal Los Uros. And after the luxury of the train, that's a bit of a comedown. But the showers are warm, and so are the beds.

So, that was that. Was it worth the money? There are probably more economical ways to entertain yourself in Peru, and while the views were great, they don't compare to the journey from Stockholm to Vienna via the Austrian alps that I did in '96. But for the luxury train experience, definitely worth it. I won't be treated like that again for a long, long time.

A successful day Index A lazy day